Edgar (15)


Dir: Clint Eastwood

With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench

Running time: 136 minutes

ONE of the benefits of being an elder statesman of American cinema is the chance to pursue your heart's and mind's desires. Witness Clint Eastwood. In recent movies he has dealt with the afterlife (Hereafter), Nelson Mandela (Invictus), and race relations in modern America (Gran Torino). Try pitching that lot to a studio if you're a new kid on the directing block.

Now, for his 32nd film, Eastwood turns to an American tale of law enforcement, paranoia, and galloping personal repression. This is a stately examination of the FBI's longest serving director – for good and ill. Eastwood's J Edgar is for those who like their biopics detailed, chewy, conservative, and erring on the side of dullness. There are no concessions here to audiences who might be more familiar with the X Factor than the G-Men. Yes, there is a recognisable face in the leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, but he is buried under prosthetics and the weight of history.

In short, do not expect fireworks from Eastwood's picture, even when the more remarkable aspects of Hoover's personality emerge. In fact, especially when they emerge. Just as The Iron Lady was a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a controversial political figure, so Eastwood resists shining too glaring a light on Hoover.

In keeping with the film's argument that Hoover was to a large extent a product of his times, the picture opens in 1919 with a series of bombings attributed to Communist radicals. The young Hoover, as the older one would, sees reds under every bed. He despises the amateurish attempts to combat the threat, from the clumsy way crime scenes are handled to the inability, criminal in his eyes, to be organised about investigations.

Eastwood and his screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who also wrote Milk, the far livelier biopic of Harvey Milk, the gay rights campaigner), waste no time in introducing the character who would loom larger in Hoover's life than any other – his mother, played by Judi Dench. Doing her usual sterling job of raising the quality of any film she is in, Dench plays mommie dearest as a fascinating mixture of suffocating love and steely disapproval.

Having introduced his subject, Eastwood cuts to contemporary times when Hoover, about to retire from his beloved Bureau, is dictating his memoirs to a series of young male secretaries. This back and forth is the pattern the director sticks to throughout. It is not a straight road though, with muddle setting in as we wander from decade to decade, event to event, enemy to enemy.

What does not change is the sedate pace. For long stretches the film is less of a brisk march through a life than a plod, and a stagey one at that, as when Hoover comes home to mamma to announce that Charles Lindbergh's baby has been kidnapped. Scenes like these have all the stiltedness of a film made in the early 1930s rather than one that is set in them.

Eastwood uses the various big cases of Hoover's career to show how he was a man obsessed by rules and order, except when it didn't suit him to be. His prudish, uptight nature is exposed mercilessly when he later comes up against "the nitwit Kennedy kid". The scenes between Jeffrey Donovan, playing Robert Kennedy, and DiCaprio, like the scenes between Dench and DiCaprio, are the best in the film.

Indeed, J Edgar ambles along well enough when it sticks to politics, Hoover's career, and piling on the period detail. It's when the picture tries to flesh out his private life that it comes across as unconvincing and undercooked.

Take Naomi Watts's role as the secretary who devotes a lifetime to loving Hoover from afar. After an initial flurry of coquettishness, Watts spends almost the entire film coming into his office clutching a piece of paper and wearing a concerned look by way of expressing that love.

Then there is Hoover's relationship with a fellow agent, played by Armie Hammer. The film tiptoes towards and away from this, occasionally allowing feelings to roar into life. As in the scenes of a grief-stricken Hoover sorting out his mother's belongings, it is all done in the best possible taste, going as far as Eastwood deems necessary when he could and should have ventured further.

Underwritten parts are the least of it for Watts and Hammer. Their biggest problem is the make-up they are forced to labour under as the story progresses down the decades. When it comes to growing old convincingly, DiCaprio clearly got all the goodies and attention from the make-up department. Hammer and Watts look like they were dunked in a barrel of talcum powder and sent on their way.

DiCaprio looks and sounds the part, though, from the shark-like eyes to Hoover's pugilistic bearing. Eastwood's film might want for pep, but his leading man is the very picture of coiled power and simmering fury.